Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). By damaging your immune system, HIV interferes with your body's ability to fight infection and disease.


  • HIV is caused by a virus.

  • It can spread through sexual contact, illicit injection drug use or sharing needles, contact with infected blood, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.

  • HIV destroys CD4 T cells white blood cells that play a large role in helping your body fight disease.

  • The fewer CD4 T cells you have, the weaker your immune system becomes.


Possible signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Muscle aches and joint pain

  • Rash

  • Sore throat and painful mouth sores

  • Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck

  • Diarrhea

  • Weight loss

  • Cough

  • Night sweats


Antigen/antibody tests

  • These tests usually involve drawing blood from a vein.

  • Antigens are substances on the HIV virus itself and are usually detectable a positive test in the blood within a few weeks after exposure to HIV.

  • Antibodies are produced by your immune system when it’s exposed to HIV. It can take weeks to months for antibodies to become detectable.

  • The combination antigen/antibody tests can take 2 to 6 weeks after exposure to become positive.

Antibody tests

These tests look for antibodies to HIV in blood or saliva. Most rapid HIV tests, including self-tests done at home, are antibody tests. Antibody tests can take 3 to 12 weeks after you’re exposed to become positive.

Nucleic acid tests (NATs)

  • These tests look for the actual virus in your blood (viral load).
  • They also involve blood drawn from a vein.
  • If you might have been exposed to HIV within the past few weeks, your health care provider may recommend NAT.
  • NAT will be the first test to become positive after exposure to HIV.

CD4 T cell count

CD4 T cells are white blood cells that are specifically targeted and destroyed by HIV. Even if you have no symptoms, HIV infection progresses to AIDS when your CD4 T cell count dips below 200.

Viral load (HIV RNA)

This test measures the amount of virus in your blood. After starting HIV treatment, the goal is to have an undetectable viral load. This significantly reduces your chances of opportunistic infection and other HIV-related complications.

Drug resistance

Some strains of HIV are resistant to medications. This test helps your health care provider determine if your specific form of the virus has resistance and guides treatment decisions.


  • Currently, there’s no cure for HIV/AIDS. Once you have the infection, your body can’t get rid of it.

  • However, there are many medications that can control HIV and prevent complications.

  • These medications are called antiretroviral therapy (ART).

  • Everyone diagnosed with HIV should be started on ART, regardless of their stage of infection or complications.


  • Non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) turn off a protein needed by HIV to make copies of itself.

  • Nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) are faulty versions of the building blocks that HIV needs to make copies of itself.

  • Combination drugs also are available, such as emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Truvada) and emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide fumarate (Descovy).

  • Protease inhibitors (PIs) inactivate HIV protease, another protein that HIV needs to make copies of itself.

  • Integrase inhibitors work by disabling a protein called integrase, which HIV uses to insert its genetic material into CD4 T cells.

  • Entry or fusion inhibitors block HIV’s entry into CD4 T cells.

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